Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Why saxophonist Yahya Abdul-Majid’s playing was important for Jazz Evolution

Evolution of improvised music isn’t just the purview of well-known innovators. Every musician with new ideas contributes to the sounds, and Capital Bop’s Luke Stewart profiles one such player who died recently. Tenor saxophonist Yahya Abdul-Majid impressed many listeners the few times he gigged in New York during the 1980s with drummer Jackson Krall ’s Secret Music Society, bassist William Parker’s groups and when he formed a close working relationship with drummer Denis Charles. But most of the time from the 1970s until he died Abdul-Majid stuck close to his Washington D.C. home base where his powerful yet mystical style was showcased in small clubs along with the sounds of the city’s few other advanced players. Most of his other out-of-town jobs which led to his highest profile, were with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Abdul-Majid  had briefly been an Arkestra  members when the keyboardist/composer was still alive; he then rejoined the band and stayed with it on-and-off from 1997 to 2018 as it subsequently evolved under the leadership of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. Although he rarely recorded or led his own groups,f his associates insist that Abdul-Majid's inspired playing will long be fondly remembered. READ

The Joys of Solo Sax: An Improvisational Threesome

Taking as the starting point for his essay recent solo saxophone albums by one American and two Italians musicians, Perfect Sound Forever’s Daniel Barbiero sketches out the recent history of solo reed innovations. Beginning with Anthony Braxton’s groundbreaking 1969 two-LP set For Alto, he points out that while it was not the first notable solo sax outing, the set was influential not only because of its length, but for its radicalism in insisting that various conceptual and technical decisions could be suggested and solved during the course of improvisations. While soon afterwards other Jazz musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker and Steve Lacy were each refining the solo sax challenge in individual fashions, Barbiero also points to composer Luciano Berio creating Sequenza IXb for alto saxophone as similarly influential in the noted music area. Reflecting both  compositional and improvisational creativity in their interpretations Barbiero points to three particular stylists. Most worthy of extensive analysis he says are the works of Pavia-based soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo’s expressive but formal solo musings; Rome-based multi-reedist Marco Colonna, engagement with the expanded range of instrumental techniques; and New York-based, patrick brennan – who spells his name with lower case letters – polyrhythmic work made up of overlapping melodies as a composer without an ensemble.


Ran Blake’s Less-than-Standard Answers to 20 Questions

Retired doyen of Third Stream Music at Boston’s New England Conservatory (NEC), pianist Ran Blake, 85, comes up with succinct but provocative answers to a Zoom-conducted session from the 20 Questions blog. On it Blake discusses his favourite musical performers and influences, which unsurprisingly include composer and former NEC head, the late Gunther Schuller, composer/theorist George Russell; innovative pianists Jaki Byard and Thelonious Monk and singers Chris Connor and Jeanne Lee, the latter with whom he famously often worked. Besides insisting that older artists should be given more consideration, Blake mentions his interest in serious cinema, especially the productions of Alfred Hitchcock and film noir; his appreciation of the culture of European countries such as Greece and France; and his dislike of provincial and intolerant small towns in Massachusetts – except for Lennox which for a four-year period in the twilight of the Eisenhower presidency hosted a school for improvisation. READ

Translating Free Jazz into Japanese: Itaru Oki

Trumpeter Itaru Oki, who recently died at 78, was one of the first Japanese players to create a unique local take on Western Free Jazz. Just as importantly, as this remembrance in The Wire points out, following his move to France in 1974, he collaborated internationally with American and European sound innovators such as bassist Alan Silva, alto saxophonist Noah Howard, pianist François Tusques and trumpeter Axel Dörner. Taking up trumpet as a child, after moving to Tokyo in 1965, Oki soon advanced from playing Dixieland to interpreting Modern Jazz to becoming a member of many pioneering Free Jazz units with the likes of percussionist Masahiko Togashi and bassist Keiki Midorikawa. Subsequently moving back and forth over the years from Europe to Japan, he was also part of the French Marteau Rouge band with guitarist Jean-François Pauvros and synthesizer player Jean-Marc Foussat; performed on a wide array of horns and woodwind instruments; and was an accomplished trumpet builder who created instruments at odd angles, often with two brass bells. READ

South Africa’s Blue Notes’ Influence on European Free Music

Leaving Apartheid-era South Africa in 1964 to relocate in Europe brought more than personal liberation to a group of musical expatriates. For as Bandcamp Daily’s Piotr Orlov points out, the power and freedom in the playing of South Africa's Blue Notes band soon invigorated the European Free Jazz scene. While the band’s mixture of Hard Bop and Xhosa melodies was unique enough, the members were also fluent in what the group's alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana called “the fowl run”, local freeform playing equivalent to what saxophonist Abert Ayler was doing in the US. Although the group broke up shortly afterwards, members became involved in currents of European Free Music in Scandinavia and London from the 1970s onwards. Pianist Chris McGregor formed his large Brotherhood of Breath band which featured South Africans like bassist Harry Miller alongside such British players as saxophonist Mike Osborne. Trumpeter Mongezi Feza played in progressive groups like Keith Tippett's and Robert Fripp’s Centipede. Pukwana played with everyone from drummer Han Bennink to Toots & the Maytals; and bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani worked regularly with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and in different bands with Norwegian alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. Drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, the Blue Notes only living  member, who returned to post-Apartheid South Africa – the others died in Europe – has worked with stylists as different as tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and guitarist Derek Bailey. READ

Reggie Workman: do the best on every occasion

Named a NEA Jazz Master this year, bassist Reggie Workman, 83, a linchpin of legendary groups featuring everyone from tenor saxophonist John Coltrane to drummer Andrew Cyrille, discusses his career and ideas with SF Jazz’s Richard Scheinin. Brought up in Philadelphia’s Germantown with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp as a neighbor, the bassist’s more than 60-year career began playing R&B gigs and jam sessions in Philly with other local players who would go on to stellar Jazz careers. At one point he and pianist McCoy Tyner were two-thirds of the house band for the city’s House of Jazz club backing visiting soloists. In New York, besides more traditional gigs with the likes of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Art Blakey, Workman was a member of Coltrane's first important quartet. “When John Coltrane came along, he explained to me that I was to be myself,” he recalls. “And that was a revelation to me. My philosophy became that you do the best in every occasion, and it’s all about creating a musical dialogue. You try to find a common thread, because every area that you want to deal with, you should be able to do your best.” That philosophy has guided him ever since, through numerous affiliations, most prominently with the cooperative Trio3 band with Cyrille and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and in his teaching at Manhattan’s New School and other educational institutions. READ

The Fragmented History of Québec’s Political Free Jazz of the 1970s

Using as his starting point historian Eric Fillion recent book on the socio-political and musical current of 1970s Québec, Point of Departure’s Pierre Crépon traces the ramshackle history of Le Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec (QJLQ). Organized in 1967 as a local response to the revolutionary music played by radical Americans like tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, the (QJLQ), made up of tenor saxophonist Jean “Doc” Préfontaine, trumpeter Yves Charbonneau, bassist Maurice Richard and drummer Guy Thouin, soon began to splinter like the many fringe Marxist parties of the day. First adapting its uncompromising Free Jazz to affiliation with then counterculture pop performers such as singers Robert Charlebois and Louise Forestier and the massive psychedelic-rock-New music-improv ensemble L’Infonie, political currents soon became paramount. Encompassing several personal changes which at one point brought American cellist Tristan Honsinger into the group, the QJLQ became preoccupied with setting up a series of Montreal arts spaces and Québec countryside communes that would be working class, socialist and promote Québec separatism. Frequent police raids, especially when band members began affiliating with violent separatists like those in The Front de libération du Québec, soon made the political commune idea impossible. And with the counterculture becoming more hedonistic than political, plus Préfontaine's and Charbonneau's diverging political views, the band was finished by 1975. READ

Free Jazz verses Far Right Extremism

Those who condemn Free Jazz or Energy Music as mere noise might be surprised to hear that this “noise” can serve a useful purpose – played very loudly it can drown out offensive right-wing speeches. That’s what Vice’s Sebastian Skov Andersen found out recently. For the past few months a collective of Danish Jazz musicians have followed far-right politician Rasmus Paludan around the country playing very loudly and badly at his events. Called Free Jazz against Paludan (FJAP), the group targets the founder of a political party that holds rallies in neighborhoods with large immigrant population, burning and stomping on Qurans, as well as suggesting that Muslim immigrants and other minorities should be deported or imprisoned in special camps. “You have to protest in a way that is not destructive and violent” says saxophonist John Rasmussen, a FJAP member. “We just provoke Paludan as much as he provokes others, to make it very visible how destructive he is. The louder we play the more attention we can draw.” So far Denmark’s “potentially biggest band” has attracted many improvisers to its counter demonstrations, playing everything from double basses to egg shakers and pots and pans. READ

Once you stop being a student, you’re dead: Saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell

While many lament the isolation and other problems caused by the Covid pandemic, saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell sees it as an opportunity. Away from his teaching job at California’s Mills College, Mitchell, who was recently named a 2020 NEA Jazz Master, tells SFJAZZ staff writer Richard Scheinin that with more ideas than ever, he now has the time to try out new concepts.I can play the same note for a week if I want to. I have the time to do it,” he explains. One of the founders of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) and an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell has been a lifelong learner and passes that idea onto his students. Taking up the saxophone in high school he improved his reed skills in an American army band under the twin influences of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and returning to his home town of Chicago then perfected his composing and improvising talents studying with AACM founder, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. This learning continued during the founding of the AEC, with trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Joseph Jarman, and later through his association with innovators in New York and Paris, such as saxophonist) Frank Wright and drummer Muhammad Ali. That's one reason Mitchell has been able to maintain his creativity when performing his solo saxophone piece “Nonaah", first created in the 1970s. “When people hear that tune," he notes. "It can almost sound like more than one instrument is playing.”   READ

Drummer/composer John Hollenbeck is in control despite the pandemic

Limited in activities because of Covid-19’s social distancing, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck is still involved in many musical projects. As he tells Night After Night’s Steve Smith, besides practising more, he’s preparing for remote teaching in his position at Montréal’s McGill University, where he has worked since 2015, and has just completed a vocal-oriented CD with singers Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, a big band and keyboardist Gary Versace. While Hollenbeck usually composes original music for projects such as those with vocalist/performer Meredith Monk, large and small ensembles and his own bands, especially the Claudia Quintet, he says arranging pop and rock songs for the new CD wasn’t that dissimilar since “I take something that I call a cell, and manipulate it in so many ways, so it sounds different ... the difference [here] is that the cell does not come from me.” The session is on his own brand-new Flexatonic label which he organized as a non-profit to reissue his earlier recordings on other imprints and to release albums when he wants to. The one major pandemic drawback, he admits, is that the Claudia Quintet can’t tour since with members like saxophonist/clarinettist Chris Speed in Los Angeles and bassist Drew Gress in upstate New York, they can’t physically connect. READ

Remembering the Achievements of Simon H. Fell

When British double bassist/composer Simon H. Fell died of cancer in late June a series of remembrances were published celebrating his contribution to the world of Improvised Music. Although this article by The Wire’s Julian Cowley may err towards the personal and is somewhat sentimental, it does point out Fell’s great versatility. Someone who was equally at home playing theme-based Jazz with drummer Paul Hession and tenor saxophonist Mick Beck and noise-improv with guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn and reed player Charles Wharf, Fell was also dedicated to creating delicate acoustic improvisations with the band IST featuring harpist Rhodri Davies and cellist Mark Wastell. While these performing opportunities were taking place, Fell was also working on his PhD thesis, which he completed in 2017; overseeing his own record label, Bruce’s Fingers; and most importantly, writing and recording expansive orchestral works like Composition No 62. The concept behind it and others like it was, as the bassist once said, if musical ideas from composer Richard Strauss, Jazz pianist Stan Tracey, saxophonist/theorist Anthony Braxton and improvising guitarist Derek Bailey could be combined in one composition, with arrangements suggested by Henry Mancini’s soundtrack orchestrations.   READ

Pianist Kris Davis’ Skyrocketing Profile

With her most recent Festival concert at the Toronto Jazz cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, New York state-based Canadian pianist Kris Davis still gets to express her ideas to The Toronto Star’s Mike Doherty in this profile. Now widely praised by American outlets like the New York Times, Down Beat and National Public Radio, Calgary-raised Davis started her jazz apprenticeship in the Jazz program at the University of Toronto. While she found some of the teaching too traditional, she picked up the basics, and while attending university had a regular gig in a hotel lounge; was part of a local funk band; and, along with many other neophyte musicians, played sessions at the Rex hotel. She has widened her scope since moving south in 2001, because  as she says, musically she wants to simultaneously occupy “all these different spaces.” She’s certainly doing that. Besides teaching music at the college level, she works regularly with musicians such as soprano and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, famed drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and guitarist Mary Halvorson and in 2016 even started Pyroclastic, her own record label, to release her music and discs by other players she admires. READ

I’m just gonna continue doing what I’ve been doing: Matthew Shipp

More concerned with the technical aspects of playing than most interviews, this piece by The Brooklyn Rail’s George Grella has  pianist Matthew Shipp discuss the nuts-and-bolts of his style. Conscientiously musing about his approach to rhythm, melody, and harmony, the pianist talks about building structure, manipulation of sound blocks and how a separate process has to exist when considering the results as a recording artist or as a live performer. “Recording something is one of the most important ways of keeping jazz alive,” he notes. Since, as Shipp says, “the bottom line is that I’m playing myself on the piano”, sometimes he admits his best improvisations appear out of a dream-like state, jolting him with the realization that he’s creating sounds he’s never played before. Shipp, known for his frequent association with the likes of drummer Whit Dickey and tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman, reports that some of his playing relates to concepts pioneered by Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner and even the "bizarre" individualism of Chopin’s piano music. However “Bud Powell is always my guy.” Shipp also reveals that when he first started listening to music as a child he was a big Jackson 5 fan. “I wanted to have a big Afro like Michael did but my father wouldn’t let me.” READ

A glimpse into the mind of Joe Morris

Cerebral but disjointed is this article, since it consists of e-mail responses to Twenty Questions posed by the web site of the same name to guitarist Joe Morris. Someone who has made his living playing Free Music as a mostly self-taught musician for 45 years, Morris’ musings encompass history as well as defining encounters with his mentors. Initially interested in 1970s pop music until it turned into “bad showbiz rock nonsense”, his involvement in New Haven’s creative music scene included playing with violinist Billy Bang and drummer Andrew Cyrille. He also developed a long-time partnership with legendary avant-garde pianist Lowell Davidson, who perversely insisted on playing double bass with Morris. Although Morris says he was influenced by guitarist Derek Bailey who “out of the blue invented a whole new way of playing”, he never tried to sound like him. Morris later recorded with multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, despite playing with a broken finger; had one levitating gig  with drummer Sunny Murray; but despite his admiration for pianist Cecil Taylor’s ideas and wanting to become part of the latter’s  group for many years, “the closer I got the less it seemed to matter,” he admits. Morris has curated concert series in New Haven, runs his own Riti record label and written and published a book called Perpetual Frontier: The properties of Free Music, is still fully committed to what he calls “music made any way people want to make it.” READ

Long Distance Improvising transcends the medium: Mark Dresser

San Diego double bassist Mark Dresser isn’t fazed by the need during the current Covid-19 pandemic to make music with others in different locations. As he tells The San Diego Reader’s Andrew Hamlin, he’s been involved in a variation of this concept since 2006 when he relocated to teach at University of California in 2006 after 18 years in New York. At that point he began using and refining telematics programs. Telematics is an audio and visual medium that allows for real time improvisation involving Dresser and his California-based associates in joint concerts with fellow musicians in many other locations. “It exercises the best kind of collaborative muscle, unleashing the creative potential between artists and technologists to problem solve, work together and transcend the medium itself,” he says. Considering that over the years Dresser’s playing associates have ranged from cornetist Bobby Bradford and flutist James Newton to multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton and saxophonist John Zorn, he has plenty of contacts both academically and in the Jazz world from which he can find willing collaborators in these experiments.


A growth and a rebirth period: Whit Dickey

Starting Tao Forms, his own record label, this year has given drummer Whit Dickey another way to disseminate the Free Jazz he’s been playing for the past 40 years. In this interview with Aquarium Drunkard’s anonymous questioner he insists that he’s still growing at the age of 66, and, after a period of illness and study, has decided to become more active musically. While Dickey’s membership in tenor saxophonist David S. Ware’s seminal quartet is only briefly mentioned, he does go into greater details about his vibrational theories on the yin-and-yang of music; his early studies with percussionist Milford Graves; and how consistently listening to the vibrations from tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s music provided the impetus to create Tao Forms. Since his improvising is idiosyncratic in itself, Dickey explains that he can find novel sound areas to explore whether it is, as on his newest discs, with musicians he has worked with for many years such as pianist Matthew Shipp – he played on Shipp’s first recording – and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, or newer, younger associates such as bassist Brandon Lopez. READ

Spiritual Jazz Survivor: Sonny Greenwich

Mystical is often used to describe many Jazz musicians but only a few have ever reached a genuine level of otherworldly playing like tenor saxophonists John Coltrane or Albert Ayler. One is guitarist Sonny Greenwich. But because of his age and nationality, Greenwich, now 84, and long based in Montreal, never received the international recognition he deserved. In these excerpts from Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich, published in Point of Departure, Canadian author Mark Miller tries to explain why. Despite brief sojourns in the United States and with praise for his work with the likes of saxophonists John Handy and Hank Mobley, Greenwich was not able to establish a professional foothold there. In Montreal, while he was involved as a frequent player at the Jazz Workshop, which brought avant-garde players such as pianist Paul Bley and alto saxophonist Marion Brown to the city, the more conservative climate limited his local opportunities to work elsewhere.  Besides testimonies to Greenwich’s unique talent by such long-time associates like pianist/bassist Don Thompson, the piece also offers a brief history of how so-called psychedelic Jazz fared – or didn’t – during its heyday in late 1960s Montreal. READ

The more we emptied the room, the more we’d play: Kidd Jordan

A little late to the party, DownBeat finally publishes a small feature on New Orleans’ tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan just after his 85th birthday. With another hook that Jordan’s most recent CD was recorded the day before Corvid-19 infection fears closed down the entire city, writer Cree McCree stresses the adaptability of Jordan to any situation. Besides educating thousands of young musicians like saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison in colleges and the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp, and playing R&B gigs on baritone saxophone, the saxophonist has also been the standard-bearer for Free Jazz in the city for more than half a century. Heavily influenced by hearing first Charlie Parker and later John Coltrane in person, over the years Jordan has played with such avant-garde avatars as saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor. Like them he keeps performing advanced music his own way, even if it empties the room at clubs and during festival sets, he jokes. Open to all sorts of sounds, Jordan once attended performances by composer John Cage and trumpeter Louis Armstrong on the same evening. As for the future, the saxophonist’s plan is to keep playing the music he loves as long as he can..     READ

The Lost Shorter: Trumpeter Alan Shorter

Known if at all as the older, weirder brother of saxophonist Wayne Shorter of Miles Davis and Weather Report fame, trumpeter Alan Shorter (1932-1988) was part of the Free Jazz movement in the United States and France, who recorded little and died in obscurity. Point of Departure’s David Grundy’s exhaustively researched essay is an attempt to provide a biography. Unlike his brother, who first played Hard Bop with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Alan Shorter was fully committed to new music. His mid-1960s New York tenure featured recordings with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Marion Brown and pianist Dave Burrell among others, and even a solo LP featuring tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. But criticism of his so-called strained technique followed him then and during the six years after 1968 he spent in France.  While he recorded his second - and final - leadership disc there alongside tenor saxophonist Gary Windo, as well as LP sideman appearances with Shepp, bassist Alan Silva and pianist Francois Tusques, his on-stage behaviour described as either “militant” or “suicidal” led him back to the US. Although he never to played professionally again, a 1990s interview suggested that a cache of his novels, plays and other manuscripts exists and could be published. READ

Preferring to live in the Theatre of Questions rather than the Theatre of Answers: Keith Rowe

Celebrating his 80th birthday and more than 60 years as a professional musician, British tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe elucidates some of his philosophy in a wide-ranging interview with The Brooklyn Rail’s Todd B. Gruel. Although one of the founding members of two ensembles dedicated to electro-acoustic improvisation, the UK's AMM in the mid-1960s, and the international MIMEO in the late 1990s, Rowe follows his own path. This individuality also encompasses his visual art as a painter and affiliation and disengagement in various philosophical and political groups over the decades. Rowe’s discontinuous relationship with AMM, whose most constant members have been pianist John Tilbury and percussionist Eddie Prévost, and his similar history with the much larger all-electronic MIMEO, which has included Phil Durrant, Rafael Toral and Thomas Lehn, is part of this tendency. While encouraging the groups’ departure from melody, harmony, and rhythm, Rowe says he’s also interested in projecting sounds that are daring and playing  “anything disruptive”. Furthermore as his music evolves, he’s continuously working on stripping away all redundant material from his improvisations as well in his performance setup. READ